Photo by Claudio Schwarz

Non-Fiction

The week we social distanced

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KRATI GARG is an oral surgeon and freelance journalist; 
ANDERS FURZE is a journalist and editor of Daily Review. This is how their week of social distancing unfolded.

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Saturday March 14

Anders
I spend the day spiralling. The news filtering out of Italy is horrific. It feels like everybody on Twitter is screaming that we are just a couple of weeks behind them. I think we’re about to go into lockdown at any moment.

Somewhat inconveniently my TV breaks down. I’m suddenly picturing being isolated in my tiny apartment with no TV. I panic buy a new one, and a Play-Station 4.

Krati 
My husband and I both work in healthcare and we’re sorting out our house in case one of us gets Covid-19 and needs to isolate.

I head to the supermarket at midday. Parking is crazy. All the shelves are empty. I make do with some milk and come out frustrated.

For a moment, I wonder if I should cancel my leave at the public hospital for next week, but I’m sure they’ve got enough staff on and won’t need me. 

Twitter is flooded with jokes about Peter Dutton and his picture with Ivanka Trump.

My husband is furiously drafting Covid-19 protocols for the Intensive Care Unit. #social distancing is trending. Two more weeks of school for my son. I look forward to some time off. I have started watching Friends again every night.

Sunday March 15

Anders
I feel sick. After too much scrolling, I get out of my apartment to get some air. I walk up Collins Street, but my anxiety is only heightened by the disconnect between everybody screaming about Italy on Twitter and acting normally on the street. The cafes are full, the shoppers are out in force.

In the frenzy a thought hits me: what if I return to my hometown? The one I fled 11 years ago? Would that be ridiculous? My work and my life are in Melbourne. 

But I’m developing a headache and maybe it’s the virus and maybe it’s too late anyway. Maybe I’ll infect my parents.

I need a second opinion. I message Krati because she is the only person I know who should know.

I have no idea if this is the right thing to do. I’m aware that he probably thinks I’m being crazy. Maybe I am crazy.

She says I should go to Albury.

A lockdown is imminent, I think. It’s a matter of time. Go home. Maybe not immediately, but in the next few days.

I don’t know if I’m being needlessly anxious about passing it onto my parents.

There’s no guarantee but if you’re not symptomatic and your parents aren’t either it should be ok. It would be good for you and good for them. BTW, hand wash, all of you!

The drive back to Albury is stressful. I sit in the back, Dad’s in the front. I wear a mask and force him to keep the windows down. I have no idea if this is the right thing to do. I’m aware that he probably thinks I’m being crazy. Maybe I am crazy.

Krati
There is an increase in cases world-wide. In NSW and Victoria they’re rising steadily. I withdraw my  leave to help set up a Covid-19 protocol at the public hospital. Anders wants to know if he should take up the offer from his parents to move to Albury. It’s the best thing he can do, I say. 

I call my cousin in Sydney who has arrived from India just before the overseas traveller quarantine hit. She says she will self-isolate regardless.

I make tomorrow’s school lunch for my son and try to research the links between Covid-19 and dental work, but don’t have much luck. 

Monday March 16

Anders
I’m paranoid that I’ve brought Covid-19 with me into my parents’ home. We do some social distancing and I’m mostly confining myself to my sister’s old bedroom. I’m religiously washing my hands, and we’re maintaining a couple of metres between each other.

I get a call from work – they’re reducing my workload to three days a week. I understand why: things are about to get very messy. I start thinking of all the events that have been cancelled, and all the people whose jobs rely on them, and all the cafes and bars that are about to go under, and it gets overwhelming. I take a long hot shower and go to bed. I have a headache. Is it the virus?

Krati
I have an early morning list at a private hospital. On the way, I hear Sammy J talking to a listener about a heart-warming story of people looking after each other. I feel optimistic.

In between patients my ABC app pings with breaking news: Victoria has declared a state of emergency. A member of the theatre staff becomes teary. “I am a Melbourne girl,” she says. “This is unprecedented.”

In the rush, I have forgotten my hospital clogs, the first time that’s ever happened. Am I starting to lose it?

In between patients my ABC app pings with breaking news: Victoria has declared a state of emergency. A member of the theatre staff becomes teary. “I am a Melbourne girl,” she says. “This is unprecedented.” I get an  update from my son’s school: they’re closing a week early. I am thinking who will look after him while we’re at work? 

I print information on Covid-19 for patients. I tell staff at my private practice that they need to put four questions to every patient who calls in and ask them to use a hand sanitiser before they take a seat.

The practice manager says she still can’t find any masks with shields and has rung every supplier. Luckily we have enough for a few months.

Tuesday March 17

Anders
I still have a headache and pop a Panadol. I put it down to stress. We have our first working-from-home teleconference. Between the muffled voices and the lag-time I can barely hear what’s going on. Everybody’s worried because our main work involves writing about cultural events and writing about real estate … will this even matter in two weeks? Again, I catch myself thinking about too much too quickly. I bring my attention to the bird chirping through my computer from my colleague’s backyard.

Again, I catch myself thinking about too much too quickly. I bring my attention to the bird chirping through my computer from my colleague’s backyard.

We all decide that we’ll try using Zoom for our next meeting. I have a bunch of stories to file quickly but I can’t stop scrolling through grim reports on social media. After dinner my parents suggest we watch The Crown. Mum says it’s good, easy viewing. Wallpaper TV. We give it a go but I can’t concentrate. A few metres away from my parents, I start to cry. Mum says she wishes she could give me a hug.

Krati
NSW cases are now over 200, the largest increase in a 24-hour period.

A security guard is out the front of the public hospital. A patient is screaming from the lift – “What the f***, why are they making me use this stuff?” – and pointing to the hand sanitiser dripping from his palms. “They’re going mad. It’s nothing. It’s a bloody flu!” 

Two other patients nod in agreement.

A patient is screaming from the lift – “What the f***, why are they making me use this stuff?” – and pointing to the hand sanitiser dripping from his palms. “They’re going mad. It’s nothing. It’s a bloody flu!” 

I have back-to-back meetings to establish what we’re doing at the dental hospital. There is no research on the correlation between Covid-19 transmission and oral cavities. Would it get transmitted through splattering of blood and saline? Aerosol? Mist? Should we stop elective dental treatment in asymptomatic carriers? Finally, we reach a modest consensus.

I leave work exhausted and cancel my personal training. The trainer texts me: “At least walk 10K.” I promise her I will. I know I won’t.

My husband has had a tough day. The ICU is gearing up big time. Our son, however, had a great day. He is reading a book on dinosaurs.

I cook an elaborate Indian meal to de-stress. I watch a few episodes of Friends and fall asleep.

Wednesday March 18

Anders
Things are a bit better. The headache goes. Dad takes me for a drive (I’m in the back, he’s in front) down to the Murray River, where we stand a couple of metres apart and sip coffees. We go looking for platypuses but find none.

I ring my sister. We are chatting every day. She’s a runner on a TV production that hasn’t shut down – yet. When they do, she’ll be out of a job; who knows for how long. She’s keen to get back here but has the same anxiety I had about infecting Mum and Dad. We agree to stay in touch.

My most used emojis are all hearts or tears.

I’ve noticed a welcome change in how I interact with some of my close friends. We are all checking in on each other regularly via social media, sharing working-from-home stories, sending emoji love hearts. My most used emojis are all hearts or tears.

Krati
The morning is a rush: I pack my son’s lunch, shove it at him and shout that he needs to wash his hands. Situation in Iran looks bad. Airlines are going bust. Anzac Day services have been cancelled.

At my public hospital, we discover new logistical barriers. We are running low on stock. I leave work feeling I haven’t achieved anything. I call my husband. He says he wants to cancel the leave he planned for Easter – it’s all hands-on-deck.

I leave work feeling I haven’t achieved anything. I call my husband. He says he wants to cancel the leave he planned for Easter – it’s all hands-on-deck.

I call Mum in India and ask if my folks have stocked up on their medication. She says she hasn’t yet but will. She needs to go. Dad is on TV being interviewed on the political upheaval in my state.

At home, my son says he will get stuff from school to work on during the holidays. We have a take-away dinner with friends. We all wash our hands when we reach their house and use sanitiser when we leave. I call my private clinic business partner at 9:30pm. We agree to make changes to the clinic flow. We reassure each other.

Thursday March 19

Anders
A friend has instigated an hour of social Facetiming a day. We talk about everything. She suggests we try to limit the Covid-19 chatter next time we meet. The news filtering out of Iran is grim; a former colleague, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, is imprisoned there in solitary confinement. What could this mean for her? After another scrappy day of attempting to work, I go for a walk. It’s an old route I know well. I can hear neighbours mowing their lawns, the odd car drives by. It’s very quiet.

Krati
I wake up and check twitter. US cases are climbing. I text my brother who lives there. He says he is working from home and has stocked up. He jokes about putting on weight, I tell him to go for walks.

I head to the private hospital for my general anaesthetic cases. The staff screens me at their front door for my temperature. I come to the clinic, for a staff meeting. We’re swapping the nice upholstered reception furniture with PVC chairs because they’re easier to wipe down.

We agree that if we must shut down because of Covid-19 we will split into Team A and Team B for emergencies. My business partner says lockdown could be weirdly useful; he could finally get some time to read a book. I call a friend who works at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. She feels the same as me. Anxious, yet charged.

At home, my husband is grim. The surge could overwhelm the supply of equipment. The hospital is scrambling to get additional resources.

Friday March 20

Anders
I’m getting better at rationing my social media use and I manage to get my work done. Dad makes me lunch, as he has done every day. I think, I’m 30 years old. The plan was to flee my hometown for the big smoke and never return. Yet here we are. The neighbours say their adult children are moving back too. I start to think about all that has happened in the decade since I left, and all that’s happened in the week since I returned, but it’s so overwhelming that I force myself to stop.

I think, I’m 30 years old. The plan was to flee my hometown for the big smoke and never return. Yet here we are.

Instead, as it starts to get dark, I sit with my parents in the backyard. The only sound is the insects and for a second it feels like 2007 again.

Krati
The government has urged Australians to return from overseas. I drop my son off for his last day of school. He rushes off, typically excited.

I come to the clinic and get an update on stock. We can get two packs of masks without shields and two bottles of sanitisers have arrived. But we still can’t get the alcohol-based surgical scrubs.

My first patient is a teacher whose school is still open. I ask him how he feels and he says it’s fine, but parents are transferring their anxiety to their kids. 

The nurse says she has found a pharmacy that has two infrared thermometers. I request both.

My next patient is in pain and wants to book for surgery. I ask them if they can take time off work post-surgery to recover. She says she has no work: her business has shut down. She asks me for a discount. I tell her I’ll see what I can do. 

I return home. Mums at my son’s school get in touch, asking if they can help look after him while we work. Friends ask if we need food. I call my mum in India again. She has stocked up on her Insulin and other meds. Dad is getting Netflix. My hometown in India is in a kind of lockdown. I’m mildly relieved.

Some friends text me for advice. Is it ok to go on a girls’ night out? 

No, I tell them. Social distancing is the key.

2 responses to “The week we social distanced

  1. I’m reading this on April 7. Friday March 20 seems an age ago. Time bends every day.
    Thanks to both.

  2. Thanks for reading, David. It’s deeply strange, indeed: March in particular felt like a decade compressed into four weeks.

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